Brenda Webster (2009) – Vienna Triangle

I started out not really liking this novel.  A friend recommended it because it concerns Freud and some of the early history of psychoanalysis.  My Ph.D. is in psychology.  Although I have never practiced on people for money, I did lead a few men’s consciousness-raising groups in the early 70’s—and I have at least some familiarity with the work of Freud and the development of psychotherapies of all different kinds that followed.  On that count I ought to be a reasonable audience for the book.  My problem, however, was not with historical or academic issues.


What put me off was the stilted quality of the prose in the first few chapters—a quality that often afflicts novels in which real world characters are given fictional treatments, especially when the author uses third person narrative from that character’s standpoint.  You know the kind:


Albert Einstein ran his hand through his unruly hair as he confronted the pile of patent applications before him.  “I wonder,” he thought, “if everything in physics is relative.  If what I’ve been looking for these last few weeks is a theory of relativity  [Blessedly, this is not an excerpt from the book.  It’s my own invention.]


Exposition is a bit forced as the Webster maneuvers to introduce her historical character and strives then to provide enough context for us to understand Just Who This Is.  The problem is, the first character we meet in this way in Vienna Triangle is Dr. Helene Deutsch (née Rosenbach) an early follower of Freud who became a psychoanalyst and eventually director of Freud’s Vienna Psychoanalytic Clinic.  I couldn’t have told you that, but at least I recognized her name.  The 80-something Deutsch as Webster imagines her conforms to the stereotype of the psychoanalyst who views everyone through Freud-colored glasses.  It’s a bit heavy-handed—dehumanizing both Deutsch and the people she meets.


In Chapter One we meet Helene and two fictional characters: Kate, a Ph.D. student in psychology, and Emily, Kate’s mother, who shows some discomfort on learning Helene is a psychoanalyst.  In Chapter Two, narration switches to Kate’s perspective.  The novel is set in the late sixties, feminism is on the rise, but Kate’s faculty advisor is ambivalent about Kate’s thesis project to research the early history of women in the psychoanalytic movement. Her mother’s feelings about psychoanalysis become clear:


“Every profession has its scoundrels….  I have a feeling that psychoanalysis has more than its share.  Operating the way they do, behind closed doors with no one controlling what they do.  God knows what might be going on.”  [I’d like to be able to give a page reference here, but for reasons not known to me, e-books on the Amazon Kindle are not calibrated in page numbers, but in things called “Locations”.  This passage is in Locations 183-188.]


In Chapter Three, the author is still awkwardly writing historical background on Helene Deutsch as if it were a recounting of Deutsch’s present thoughts.  Attempts to give Deutsch a real character fall flat.  Kate begins interviewing Helene and explains that she wanted to interview someone who was in on the earliest development of psychoanalytic theories about women. 


“And I have the advantage of being one of the few still alive and not senile,” Helene said cheerfully, knocking three times on the wooden arm of her rocker.


Kate frowned.  Her mother was an almost compulsive knocker on wood.  [A what!?]  “I wouldn’t have thought you’d be superstitious.”  [Locations 387-393]


This is the “little human foibles” school of character revelation.  Yuck!  Nonetheless, the interview takes an interesting turn.  Kate wants to know whether the Helene’s presence in Freud’s discussion group “had any influence on the direction psychoanalysis took.”  Unfortunately, the question never gets answered.  The author has other things in mind for Kate to get into.


I’ll give another egregious example of overwriting and then drop the subject.  Kate is thinking about the fact that Helene must have been quite a beauty in her day.


Helene seemed to read her thoughts.  “I had pretty plumage once,” she said, quoting Yeats.  At one time she had read widely in the English poets.  [Locations 404-409]


The intrusive didacticism of the final sentence begs for deletion.  I don’t know if the author knows for a fact that Deutsch was widely read in the English poets, but in a novelistic context it simply doesn’t matter.  Helene quotes Yeats.  That’s all we needed to know.


What Kate (and the author, of course) is really interested in turns out to be the juicy details of the sexual liaisons of Helene, Freud, and a few other members of the Vienna psychoanalytic community.  Hey, sex sells, so I can’t be too critical here.  Eventually, this resolves itself into a fascination with a triangle involving Freud, a remarkable woman named Lou Andreas-Salomé (five years his junior), and Viktor Tausk (twenty-three years younger than Freud, eighteen years younger than Salomé).  Over some years, this Vienna triangle (as the title would have it) evolved.  Tausk and Salomé were lovers.  Freud and Salomé were close (perhaps at times lovers?).  Freud and Tausk were rather like father and son—in the best psychoanalytic, oedipal conflict sense—Tausk bent over backwards trying to gain Freud’s favor while Freud feared that Tausk wanted to supplant him and possibly even kill him.     


Helene Deutsch was twenty-eight years younger than Freud.  Freud personally undertook Deutsch’s psychoanlysis, but refused to accept Tausk, choosing rather to assign Deutsch (who was a friend of Tausk’s) to that task—something of a slap in the face to Tausk, especially as Tausk was already an experienced analyst; whereas he was Deutsch’s first analytic patient.  Several months later, Deutsch abruptly terminated Tausk’s analysis (at Freud’s insistence the author has Helene declare—I am not sufficiently familiar with current scholarship to know if Deutsch actually confirmed this).  Shortly thereafter, Tausk committed suicide.


The payoff of all of the foregoing is the author’s conclusion that Freud was not a Nice Guy—that Freud the idol had feet of clay.  In the first three or four decades after Freud died in 1939, any suggestion that Freud was anything but a paragon of individual and intellectual virtue was anathema to the analytical community that grew up around him.  Apparently, the reasoning was that if the founder were flawed, the founder’s work might be flawed and thus open to challenge.  I’m sure there are still people around who care.  Most don’t.  An analyst friend of mine whom I told a little about the book said, well, that’s all old news, you know.


Webster’s exploration of the Vienna triangle is interesting even if some of her imaginings are less than convincing.  She imagines a diary kept by Tausk during his final years.  Then she has Kate discover it in a locked drawer of her mother’s desk.  Why is it in her mother’s desk?  It turns out that Tausk was her grandfather.  Well, an author is entitled to one unvarnished coincidence.  Still, I can’t imagine anyone writing some of the made-up diary entries Webster created for this book.


I haven’t even mentioned the subplot involving Kate discovering that she is pregnant by her boyfriend and feeling ambivalent.  It’s all rather predictable and laced with occasional psychoanalytic jargon in keeping with the overall decorating scheme.  Is that too catty?


Bottom line: Don’t read this to be bowled over by its literary merit—it’s not quite writing by the numbers, but it does have a definite mechanical feel.  Read it to get a melodramatic view of the untidy goings on in the world of Freud during the early days of the development of psychoanalysis.  Or maybe better, take a look at Paul Roazen’s (1969) Brother Animal: The Story of Freud and Tausk, which my analyst friend recommended as the definitive tell-all on this subject.

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